MANCHESTER, N.H. — Merrimack's dream run came to a halt Saturday night in the first round of the NCAA tournament, as a nightmarish bounce doomed the Warriors against Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish erased a two-goal deficit and knocked out Merrimack, 4-3, in overtime at Verizon Wireless Arena. Notre Dame will play New Hampshire on Sunday at 8 p.m. for a trip to the Frozen Four.
Saturday's story, though, was about the conclusion of the greatest season in the history of Merrimack's program. The Warriors earned an NCAA tournament bid for the first time in 23 years, set a school record with 25 overall wins, 16 Hockey East wins and were ranked nationally for the first time ever, climbing as high as fourth in the polls.
For awhile Saturday, it looked like Merrimack's run would continue for another day. It built a 3-1 lead in the second period and dominated the pace in overtime for five minutes, peppering the Notre Dame net with six shots before yielding the winner.
And it came so quickly. Carter Madsen was circling his net with the puck when Notre Dame freshman forward Anders Lee dove from behind to try making a play. He got a piece of the puck, which took an odd bounce toward the net and trickled through Joe Cannata.
It's a heck of a way to bow out of the tournament, especially one that its program waited so long to see. But coach Mark Dennehy has put the pieces in place to keep the Warriors in place to contend again in the future.
"It's been a lot of hard work," Merrimack senior captain Adam Ross said. "A few years ago, Coach had a plan in place, and the guys he brought in to do this job did a good job. We thought right from day one that we had a good enough group of guys to be a good team. It's all come together in the last couple years, climbed the ladder a little bit. To get to this point is exciting.
"We're not satisfied with just making it here. We think we're good enough to go further, but overall, the past two seasons have been great. We've grown a lot as a team and as a program. Hopefully, the guys can keep her going."
Merrimack will lose seven seniors, but the big question will surround the future of sophomore forward Stephane Da Costa, who will undoubtedly get a call from the pros. Dennehy has worked too hard to let this story come to a complete close, but despite a promising future with the program's turnaround, the man in charge knows he'll never get another chance to work with this group again.
"It's about the people we surround ourselves with," Dennehy said. "You get to see how special these student-athletes are. It humbles me quite a bit to see how hard they work, how determined and disciplined they are. Hey, we could have won the national championship, and there still would have been some sadness on my part because I don't get to work with these guys again. We're going to lose some seniors this year. This is an incredibly special group, and the school is in their debt for the sacrifices that they've made."